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Graduation Season: Why Do Students Have To Wait Until 21 To Commence?

In this commencement season, I myself gave the commencement address for a bunch of high school dropouts.

Mind you, the school was Bard College at Simon's Rock, where students enter after tenth grade instead of twelfth, immediately beginning college work and never looking back.

It would be a good thing for America if these students' experience was more ordinary--except that it would also be a good thing if there were many, many fewer college students at all.

The President has called for more people to go to college (for at least some time), which makes sense--but only because of the fact that a college degree has drifted into becoming a requirement for jobs which would not require one if we blew everything up and started again.

What about an idea floated by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce a few years ago in a report that did not get nearly the attention it should have? One of its main ideas was that mandatory schooling begin at three and end after tenth grade.

After that, going on to colleges and universities would be one choice available--but not the one considered "default" and socially proper. Another choice, equally typical and just as well funded, would be vocational training.

Former New York City schools chancellor Harold Levy made some ripples last week arguing that students should go to school for an extra year--one suspects having them go for two years fewer would stand at least slightly more of a chance of taking hold with teachers' unions.

This idea would hardly surprise our great-grandparents. Before World War II fewer than half of students went beyond the ninth grade. The conception of a four-year college education as a rite of passage to middle-class adulthood only developed in the wake of the G.I Bill. It has drifted into a massive and underconsidered waste of resources, both monetary and personal.

Obviously, the solution is not to strand students with an eighth grade education as it currently stands in America. Rather, education should be "front-loaded." In much less time than we take students' time up with now, they would be given a substantial but no-nonsense education tooled to preparing them to be productive citizens. This can be done without the pretense that any but a few Americans need to be plied with "book learning" for its own sake--as opposed to being taught how to think critically and having one's horizons extended, which is not the same thing--over several more years beyond this basic toolkit.

The past gives hope here. Although there is a certain idealization of public schooling in the days of yore, the typical eighth grader a century ago had a facility in, for example, writing that few of today's college graduates could even approximate. The almost flabbergastingly eloquent letters written by Civil War soldiers are a famous example.

Leon Botstein, Bard's president (and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra), wrote a fascinating book on this alternate-universe vision of American education, Jefferson's Children. He is dismayed that "our students can barely do what their foreign counterparts did two to four years earlier," and outlines a content-rich educational program ending at tenth grade, stressing critical thinking. He stresses that there is no reason students should not be granted these skills long before eighteen. In fact, Botstein argues, in a world where sexual maturity and the realities of life hit students at an earlier age than they did back in the day, "eighteen is too old to start a serious education."

Meanwhile, in this alternate universe, the four-year college experience would make a lot more sense. When I attended Rutgers in the early 80s, it seemed that every third undergraduate, many of them first-generation college students, was majoring in economics. Their interest was much less in Keynesian theory than in preparing for a job in finance. Students actually interested in learning for its own sake, as opposed to "getting that piece of paper," were distinctly thin on the ground. While I was teaching at U.C. Berkeley the connection between most of a typical undergraduate's coursework over four years and the administrative-type jobs they sought afterwards seemed distinctly thin.

I see nothing disturbing in an alternate universe where most students of what we now think of as freshman age are, instead, out in the world learning to ply their trade--in an office, workshop, or conservatory. Instead, most of them spend six years after tenth grade gamely tolerating several dozen courses, most with only the vaguest relationship to the jobs they will seek--or who they will be as people. Is this really the way we would do things if we were building from the ground up?

College would be for students who really wanted to engage in that sort of endeavor, and they'd get to go at it at sixteen while others their age were jumping in to what they wanted to do elsewhere. Simon's Rock has been at it for forty years-plus, and today Bard High School Early College is bringing the same mission out of the Berkshires to the Lower East Side here in New York.

But imagine--no more vast network of colleges stamping out people with four-year degrees just because of a mindless sociohistorical happenstance that has drifted into a requirement that someone who goes into sales for a corporation needs to have a Bachelor's Degree (which would have sounded like science fiction to someone in, say, 1920). No more of the huge squadron of teachers requiring payment to keep this massive Rube Goldberg patchwork going.

Think of the money that would be freed up for education at younger ages, which almost all seem to agree we need to provide more of. Or, imagine the death of the glum, perfunctory pretense that sketchy remedial courses in college--now taught at 90% of them--will make up for what is not taught earlier. The thought of how many teachers are mired in jobs all about this thankless, Sisyphean task never ceases to suffocate me slightly for a second and a half.

What seems normal now is, like the QWERTY keyboard, just a contingency. I myself, for example, have no high school diploma and never will: I went to Simon's Rock. I missed the prom (which I can't say I regret) and learned to drive a little late, but overall, being spat out into the world at 19 didn't bang me up much and I have managed to hold things together since.

And meanwhile, why is 17 or 18 too young to start training to be a systems analyst? What exactly happens to a human being between 17 and 21 that makes them inherently more suited to being a systems analyst? A four-year college education? How?

Many of the students at today's commencement ceremonies could have commenced considerably earlier with their lives with no harm to them or anyone else. If we got really serious about public education, we would make it so that in the future America they really could.